City had played nine games in the month of March and there were another nine to come in April starting with a visit to Reading. Promoted along with City, after doing well in the early part of the season they had then struggled and not been out of the bottom four since the beginning of February. Things seemed very different at Elm Park compared to just over a year before, with the crowd down to a third of that which had seen the two clubs battle out a draw on their way to promotion.
City fielded an unchanged team against a Reading side which included a name from the past in left back Brian Drysdale who had been released as a 22-year-old by Lincoln City in 1965 and who had gone on to play over 250 Second Division games for Bristol City from whom he was currently on loan at Elm Park.
After not scoring for over four years it seemed Dennis Leigh had now gone goal crazy as he grabbed his second in three games to give City the lead. Although Reading equalised from the penalty spot, a late own goal by defender Steve Hetzke gave City the points to lift themselves up another place to eighth and put an end to a run of ten away games without a win stretching back to the end of October.
It was then the Easter weekend, which as was traditional meant three games in four days. Good Friday afternoon saw a visit to Grimsby to face a Mariners side a point adrift at the bottom of the division towards the end of a season-long battle against relegation. The Imps had not lost to the ‘Old Enemy’ in eleven meetings since 1962 and this game was to be no exception as they secured a second 2-1 away win in a week to remain in eighth place. The local derby drew an attendance of over eight and a half thousand, three times that for Grimsby’s previous game as an unchanged City side took a two-goal lead into half time thanks to a brace of goals from Sam Ellis. The second of these came when he headed in a Dave Smith free kick while the first was from the penalty spot after Grimsby’s 21-year-old midfielder, Bob Cumming brought down John Ward. With just over half an hour to go Grimsby pulled a goal back from the penalty spot themselves after Dennis Booth had handled but the Imps held on for the win.
The following day saw the visit to Sincil Bank of another bottom four side in York City. Like Grimsby, the Minstermen had spent the season in the lower reaches of the division and were on their way to dropping straight through from the second to fourth tiers in successive seasons. Injuries suffered in the game at Blundell Park meant Ian Branfoot returning in place of Phil Neale and John Fleming for Dennis Booth, playing wide on the right with the versatile Phil Hubbard partnering Dave Smith in midfield. In a poor game, a first half goal from Peter Graham and one in the last minute by Dave Smith gave City the points which moved them up to sixth place, four points off the top three and still with an outside chance of promotion.
I’d watched the second half of the match from the south east corner terrace and after the final whistle as Graham Taylor followed the players from the pitch the attendance was announced as 6,920. He remarked to someone with a rueful smile – “Six thousand – to see us go into the Second Division!” Although the figure was an improvement on some recent games, I think most supporters felt the team wasn’t quite good enough and would need some money spending on bringing in new players.
Percy Freeman was fit again to be on the bench against York and had come on in place of Phil Hubbard for the last 20 minutes or so. This turned out to be his last ever appearance for the Lincoln City as he had recently announced his intention to retire from League football at the end of the season. Although not yet 32 he admitted he was finding things harder both playing games and in training, and also wished to concentrate on the felt-roofing business he had set up in partnership with Peter Grotier.
The Easter Monday visit to Bury saw the Imps overtaken by the Lancashire club with a 3-0 defeat that saw any thoughts of promotion recede again. Phil Neale and Dennis Booth were both fit to return but John Fleming kept his place in the side with Phil Hubbard dropped to the bench. Three goals down with an hour played the defeat would have been greater but for a penalty save by Peter Grotier after Dennis Leigh had turned a Bury header over the bar with his hand – not then even a bookable offence.
Doubtless to Graham Taylor’s displeasure, but not surprisingly, the attendance dipped to just below 5,000 for the following Saturday’s visit of Oxford United. We saw an unchanged side beaten again, this time by 1-0 by an Oxford side who had not won in their last eight games. Back down to eighth place, City were now seven points off the top three with seven games to play and it was now more a question of how high they could finish than whether promotion was on the cards.
The following Wednesday night’s visit of Brighton, however, brought an increase in the attendance figure to over seven and a half thousand. Doubtless, there was a good contingent of travelling supporters making the long midweek journey to support their side on their way to promotion, and maybe there was the attraction for home supporters of seeing the league leaders in action. Or it could be that some may have been stung by Maurice Burton’s remarks in the Sports Echo which echoed Graham Taylor’s feeling about a town getting the team it deserves, and in terms of crowd numbers, that Lincoln as a City didn’t deserve Second Division football.
Intriguingly, Taylor was keeping his team selection close to his chest with the mention that the team had been ‘working on something’. This turned out to be the surprise selection of Phil Neale to play alongside Sam Ellis in the centre of defence tasked with doing a man marking job on Brighton’s 33-goal striker Peter Ward. Young Dean Crombie was therefore left out of the side with Ian Branfoot coming in at right back, and the only other change saw Phil Hubbard back in place of John Fleming on the right. Trailing 2-1 at half time the Imps earned a creditable draw with a goal from John Ward as his Brighton namesake endured a blank evening thanks to Phil Neale doing the job he’d been given to do.
There was news now of another club sniffing around for Graham Taylor as manager. Fourth Division Watford had recently sacked their boss Mike Keen as although currently in eighth place the Hornets were evidently growing impatient for promotion. Although Taylor mentions in his autobiography that England manager Don Revie had recommended him to Watford’s chairman Elton John, it seems likely that the famous pop star would have seen at least one of the two meetings between the two clubs the previous season when City had run out comfortable winners on both occasions. However, City chairman Heneage Dove, doubtless seeing how the wind was blowing with other clubs increasingly being linked with his manager had taken the precaution of agreeing a new three-year contract with Taylor that included a compensation clause of £20,000 that any new club would have to pay. This was an amount that was on a par with the highest transfer fees that City had ever received for players. As it was, with his thoughts more on progressing his career upwards Taylor turned down a step back to the lower division.
The 2-2 score-line with Brighton was repeated the following Saturday at Tranmere, a venue I didn’t consider going to as it promised to be too complicated a journey. Several changes were made to the side, mainly with an eye on giving experience to the younger players and this was to be the case in the remaining matches of the season. Brendan Guest, his involvement with the England Youth setup now over, returned to the exclusion of Ian Branfoot, and Dean Crombie also returned as Phil Neale, his one-off job done, now took the place of Dave Smith in midfield. Terry Cooper was now fit to return, with Sam Ellis having to miss the rest of the season, while Peter Graham was left out to give Glenn Cockerill a first start. Just after the hour mark a goal from Phil Hubbard was quickly equalised by the home side but after Neale put City back in front with a 30-yard shot a goal in the last minute by Tranmere’s Eddie Flood saw the points shared.
Peter Graham then returned to the side in place of Cockerill for the following Tuesday night’s visit to Peterborough and gave the Imps the lead midway through the first half with a header following a long throw-in. The Posh equalised before the break but Alan Harding gave City the points when he drove home a loose ball 15 minutes from the end.
The attendance was down to the five-thousands for the penultimate home game of the season against Preston North End. Since their victory over the Imps at the end of November the Lancashire club had been on the fringes of the promotion race but had now slipped to seventh, one place above City and seven points adrift of the top three. Continuing his policy of giving young players an end of season chance Graham Taylor now brought in goalkeeper Jimmy Gordon for what after almost three seasons was his league debut although he made a few appearances in cup games. Otherwise the line-up was unchanged, as Peter Graham’s diving header put the Imps ahead just before the break. It took a fine save from Gordon to preserve the lead before John Ward made the game safe at 2-0. The result lifted City back up to sixth, but six points behind third-placed Wrexham with a maximum of six points available and a much worse goal difference meant a final end to any faint hopes of promotion.